An Education in What We Take for Granted

It was very hard to not picture my three nephews and my niece (all under 5 years old) in the classrooms that I visited in the remote Nepalese countryside last week. I imagined them sitting at the old-fashioned bench and table settings, with their feet on the dusty, clay floor. With the rusty nails sticking out everywhere and the planks of wood piled up in the corner of the tiny, tiny classroom.

I pictured them sitting in a classroom that was barely 4 metres squared filled with 45 students, and pulling out their book and their pen to take down notes and to rote learn. There was certainly no room for games or movement.

There was no colour.

There was little light.

The floors were bumpy and rocky. The walls were mouldy. There were holes in the roof sometimes and gaps around the door frames.

There were no posters and no work displayed. There were no classroom materials to be seen except for the square of wood that was being used as a blackboard.

One of the rooms had the benches, half and half, facing away from each other because the teacher had to teach two classes at the same time and so he just put a blackboard at each end and ran back and forth during the lesson.

Primary schools in classroom, Okhaldhunga

 

I met with school committee members, principals, teachers – even some students. I heard their hopes, dreams and plans to improve the lives of their students and the condition of their schools. It was more than just classroom infrastructure that they wanted to change. Teacher training. Better classroom materials for learning. Colour, charts, and activities and games that would make learning more fun, differentiated and along the lines of modern pedagogy and our knowledge of different types of learners and multiple intelligences.

The concern is not just the immediate impact of unsafe or sub standard teaching. The wider problem that all limitations of teaching lead into in Nepal, is the trend for families to migrate to the bigger cities, or send their students to boarding schools with greater quality resources and teachers. This is a huge problem for small communities, as students and families who migrate, and fail to return, take their potential contribution away from their home community and all too often perpetuate the problem of educated youth leaving for jobs overseas.

Better education at the primary school level can absolutely change this trend. And what can help these leaders in their quest for better education is government support, building materials, teacher training, and ultimately – money at their disposal.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I believe that if anyone I know or have ever met (in the circles of my privileged upbringing – being born an Australian in the 80s, never experienced war and never wanted for anything) would share the great sadness that I felt when I saw these classrooms. These classrooms were prison-like and provoked outrage inside my heart.

Nepal is a beautiful country. One filled with beautiful places and beautiful people. But it is a country that has experienced conflict very recently, and is currently struggling to find political stability, establish their constitution and rebuild local governance systems that could change the way such schools that I visited are resourced and governed.

If you would like to help do something to change this –

Primary school classroom, Okhaldhunga

and this –

IMG_0470

into something like this –

 

ECD classroom after improvements - safer, educational, FUN!

then please visit friendsofvinaus.com.au for information about our Year 1 Classroom Project, Okhaldhunga Nepal or donate at our donation site here:

https://www.ammado.com/nonprofit/149753

Each classroom needs only $1000 to be transformed into a haven for students – youngsters who deserve a quality education in a safe and stimulating environment – something I have certainly always taken for granted.

 

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Would you like Children with that?

Children used to be considered a commodity – in a good way. In a sacred, protect-at-all-costs way. In the way of capital that you save and preserve for a rainy day, tucking away a stash of money knowing that one day it will be used for something wonderful. We feed them, clothe them and educate them because children are us. Children are not a separate species – they are PEOPLE, US, but just in the future. Young people are the future. Children used to be safe guarded from harm, sacrificed for, sent away to protect lineages and future generations. They were treasured. (Cue images of Children of Men, when the only baby in the world is carried untouched from the warzone.) They were not targets, not collateral damage. They were not victims. But sadly, now – they are. They have become a commodity in a disgusting way, and our desensitization towards the loss of, or harm to children is increasingly worrying.

Three Israeli teenagers were murdered last week. TEENAGERS. MURDERED. With every news report sprinkled with death, sometimes I think the words flow over us so easily that they don’t stick as we listen.

In suspected response to this, six Jewish people then slayed an Arab teenager. They burnt him to death.  He was abducted whilst waiting outside a mosque for dawn prayers. His body was found later in the morning with burns to 90 percent of it.

These teenagers had names. Naftali, Gilad, Eyal, Mohammed. They could be four of my favourite rascals of year 10 or year 12 who I teach.  They could be your sons, your brothers, your cousins or your nephews. They could be you.

Yesterday a video surfaced of Mohammed’s cousin Tariq, being bashed brutally by Israeli policemen. They pummel his face (which is out of the shot) for some time, then kick him as they carry his limp body away. He was visiting from the US – an American citizen, not that his citizenship matters. He is pictured with his mother below. tariq

As I searched for the names of the young men who have died, various websites appeared, telling me the estimated numbers of children killed during the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

rememberthesechildren.org tells me that since September 2000, 131 Israeli children have died in the conflict, and 1,526 Palestinians. These numbers are used to further divide, to further incite hatred between the two sides. “You’ve killed more of our children than we have of yours!” Who could have thought that children’s deaths could be used to win an argument? Commodities.

In a similar vein, currently, somewhere in the ocean, or somewhere in Sri Lanka (I don’t know, my government won’t tell me) there are children seeking asylum with their families, seeking Australian shores. Seeking protection. But we have sent them back to the country from which they were wanting protection. Certainly, these children may not be persecuted as their parents might be, may not be sexually tortured like their parents might be, but they will still suffer. Because children suffer when others around them do, and these families are displaced, abandoned, lost.

And if they had arrived in Australia, what would be their fate? According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (humanrights.gov.au), in January this year there were 1,631 children in community detention, and 1,006 in immigration detention facilities.  (I know I have used dots before, but I like the gross simplification it produces.) This is around this many:

……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………………………………….

How can we allow this to happen? I don’t understand how this is happening in my country. My country – whose wonderful, multi-cultural society has been strengthened and enriched by so many refugees escaping war and conflict. But now, we watch their bodies float in the ocean, or we watch them arrive – cold, wet, some near death, chaperoned by government officials into their new ‘home’. We watch them waste away in detention. More needs to be done. More places, more options. The politicians are using ‘these people’ as pawns in their policy games, and noone in the two major parties seem to care for the children.

Children don’t deserve heartache – and they didn’t ask for it. They don’t come out of their mothers, waving Palestinian flags or as little Shiites or Sunnis. They don’t choose to be born in Syria or Sri Lanka, and they don’t choose to be born in Australia, where I sit, all cushy-like, writing this (ironically as Dr Phil allows adults to fight over the ownership of two children).

Picture drawn by a child in detention

Each dot is a child. Each dot a wasted opportunity. Each dot has a name, a personality, future hopes, a sense of humour, a life, a family, friends, favourite pastimes, hobbies and talents. The 1,000 children in detention in Australia are being robbed of their childhood. Likewise, and more frightening, is the one million children who are refugees as a result of the Syrian conflict. These children may live in refugee camps for the entirety of their childhood. The time when they should be playing, learning, travelling, laughing. Education is everything, and these ONE MILLION children may not have the chance to an education.

Here you can see more pictures drawn by children in detention:

http://www.sbs.com.au/news/gallery/pictures-drawn-children-immigration-detention

What will happen to all these children though, when they are no longer children? What will happen to the world when all these children, who are growing up in detention centres, who are growing up in refugee camps, who are being abused in institutions, who are living in disadvantaged communities, who are being sold as young wives or into the sex trade, become adults? Will they feel safe and happy? Will they be good citizens? Will they perpetuate the wars or misery into which they were born?

And how, will we be able to look them in the eye when they ask why life didn’t offer them the chances that every child deserves?

Tales too Grimm for our Children

“And then Cinderella was able to go to the ball… Do you know what a ball is James?”

“No!”

“It’s where people go to dance, like a party, to have fun!”

“I don’t DANCE! I’M A BOY!

(Please understand that, to add to the hilarity of the pronouncement, James has put one hand on one hip defiantly – like Peter Pan crossed with the little teapot.)

“What’s that? You don’t dance?”

“No! Only girls dance! They wear dresses! I don’t wear dresses and I don’t DANCE!”

Earlier in the evening, while watching some cute animation called Corky and someone or other, Corky had wanted some knitted leg warmers. I had asked James during this show, “Do you know how to knit, James?”

The response had come more forcefully than expected (considering I wasn’t even sure he knew what knitting was). “NO! I don’t knit! I’m A BOY! Boys don’t KNIT!”

I had looked to his mother (my sister) at this point, who had shrugged with the same “WTF?” look that was spread across my face. “I don’t know where that came from!” she had said laughing.

So… after the knitting incident, I took James off to bed where he proceeded to present Cinderella as his story of choice before bedtime. Cinderella was in the form of a Golden Book, with worn out corners and a faded cover – it immediately brought back vivid memories of my childhood. This book, with its cartoon pictures that I had looked at so many times when I was younger reignited the feelings that had been aroused in me the many hours I had sat staring at it… so much so that I had to really wrack my brain as to whether an animation of this particular book existed – but of course it didn’t, the pictures in this book were just so strongly impressed upon my mind that in my head they moved and swirled like a movie. I remembered with such emotion wanting to be Cinderella. I wanted her dress, I wanted her Prince. As a youngster I used to fantasise about these sorts of women characters, that I was them, that I was Cinderella. Hard done by, ridiculed and ostracised, but then broke free from my slavery and diminutive state and showed the world my beauty, was the belle of the ball, and got the man.

This is what Fairy Tales did to us. They enforced such strong gender stereotypes in our mind, and made us believe that evil characters were necessary in a story – those people needed to impress some sort of lesson or fable upon us. These stories, however wonderful and timeless they may seem, do not fit into our children’s worlds anymore.

James, my beautiful nephew, is entirely discombobulated about the evil step-sisters and step-mother – “why are they so mean to her Aunty Jacqui?”, “why are they breaking her dress?” “why does she clean so much for them?”

Simple questions, rightly asked. There are no answers for these questions that make sense. “Because they are just mean people” is an answer that would just scare three year olds. He shouldn’t be frightened about ‘bad’ people – it’s not right. “Maybe someone was mean to them when they were little, and they just need a little… a little love” is my attempt at answering his questions about these horrid characters.

And then you have the magic, oh Gods, the magic.

As someone who has given up on religion, how stupid did I feel explaining that Cinderella had to run home from the ball at midnight because her pumpkin carriage and beautiful dress were disappearing?

“But why is she running home?”

“Because… the magic has run out. She wanted to go to the ball, and the nice Fairy Godmother made her a nice dress and a nice carriage, but it only lasts until 12 o’clock.”

“But why…??”

“Oh but look, the Prince is going to find her, using her shoe!”

“But why…??”

“Well, because, he really liked her. She was such a nice person, and really lovely – he doesn’t like those mean sisters, he likes Cinderella, so he’s going to find her using her shoe!!”

James, not caring one smidgen about the love story was, thankfully, quick to let this issue slide.

But it just got me thinking about the stories that formed the foundation of our childhood – Rapunzel, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, and don’t forget old Goldilocks – these stories about Good and Evil, True Love and Magic – I mean the world I want for my children will not involve people getting locked in towers (my niece and nephews’ favourite animation is Tangled – but did raise the thought in them “I hope no one locks me in a tower”), pricked my sewing machines, being poisoned by apples, or being put into an oven. Seriously, those brothers were certainly sadistic, and of course, quite Grimm. And more importantly than all these I think, is the gender stereotypes that were drilled into us. Our parents are not to blame of course – it just came with the age. We all, as young girls, pictured being picked up by a handsome Prince, or better yet, a Knight in shining armour, thrown onto the back of a white horse and being carried off into the sunset, because this is what we were taught was ideal, the Fairy Tale, the Happily Ever After. The man will set you free. True love is real. Beauty is best.

Call me pessimistic, but life is not always a Happily Ever After. It’s not a Fairy Tale, and many women are not treated like Princesses. And of course, not every woman wants a Prince. Not all girls will like dresses and dancing, pink and handbags, and not every boy will like cars and tools, blue and sports.

James however, although at least resisting the Fairy Tale structure for now, is pretty set in his ‘boyish’ ways, and I will give him the last word.

“I’m a BOY! I don’t dance! I FIX things!!!”

“Should we read the Cars book now?”

“YES!”

It’s time to give women a break

First I was going to call this piece “It’s time to give mums a break”, but I changed my mind.

There is just too much hoo-ha in the house at the moment regarding women, especially mums. They are getting abused for breast feeding, abused for NOT breast feeding, abused for eating certain foods, abused for not eating enough DIFFERENT foods, abused for exercising whilst pregnant, abused for not being healthy enough…

Come ON PEOPLE!

In a week where we were confronted by the controversial front page of Time magazine of a woman breast feeding her three year old, and a woman accused of being selfish for running whilst (quite) pregnant, and Delta Goodrem once again suffering mass beration for what – being pretty? Having amazing hair? What in Buddha’s fruit loops is going on!?

A heart-wrenching article in the Age on the Mother’s Day weekend, written by a woman sick to death of listening to the moaning of mothers (her words – not mine!) tore me apart inside. She mentions the pain she feels when she reads an email from a mum friend of hers, who is ‘devastated’ by the news that her third child is not a girl.

I actually agreed with much of what this poor, infertile, childless woman was writing. Women lucky enough to bear children, should appreciate the many, many women and couples out there who can not conceive.  Especially those lucky enough to be one half of a loving, working relationship. I wish this writer who made me choke up with tears, then immediately burn with anger, all the best in her life – I hope she fosters, adopts, or somehow is able to spread her ‘mother’s love’ over her world – which as she says, is a natural urge for so many people.

And so her article, and many others before hers, have been instances of women attacking women, mums attacking mums, mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws struggling to find bonding ties that overthrow the differences in genetics, or just plain differences, working women having a go at stay at home mums, or mums consistently telling the childless – ‘you’ll understand when you have kids’.

Yes, I’m sure I will, but if I don’t have kids, it doesn’t mean I have had less of a life, and it doesn’t mean I haven’t hurt, I haven’t worked hard, I haven’t loved, I haven’t lived.

There can be  much confusion in the lives of women. We are stuck in a strange Catch 22 situation where we are so lucky to be the ones to bear children, and yet unlucky in that some of us feel compromised by having this gift, and wanting to do all those other things in life that we could do. Careers, travelling, single life or a small business… there is no doubt that most women at some point in their life may wonder which path to take. And for how long… and who with… and should I have done that? Or should I have waited… but if I had waited, could I have had my child?

Consider our Prime Minister:

She is a successful woman, whose office alone should bring respect. Instead, we target her over women-only issues: what she should wear so her butt doesn’t cause criticism (who’s tackling the men’s wardrobe?), her manner of laughing around President Obama that seemed just a little “too girly” (?!), and don’t even start me on the ridiculous Curtsy-Gate scandal.

What’s more, (which I find really overwhelming and I’m not a mother) mothers are inundated with advice pre-pregnancy, during, after the birth (maybe even during the birth!?) and for years after a child is born. Everybody knows everything. About anything. Everybody has the best idea, the best technique, the best way to wrap a baby, the best knowledge on when to introduce solids, the best advice about when to stop breast feeding, the best books on saving your sleep and the best toys, books, clothes and activities.

Mothers and women – TRUST YOURSELF! The way you trust your instincts and call your best friend and find she really needed you to call, the way you have trusted your body since you were 14 because it’s YOUR body. Listen to all the advice, smile, and then trust yourself to make the choices that are best for you.

We all just need to give each other a break.

(Whilst I won’t even start on the woman who claims that she wouldn’t have drunk when she was pregnant if there had have been graphic tobacco-product-esque ads on the bottles of wine and spirits she was downing -)

Seriously, women, lay off the women. Men, don’t even get involved. Parents, friends, colleagues, lovers, acquaintances and society:

Take it easy on the women. Take it easy on the mums. Take it easy on Delta. Yes, she can be annoying, but honestly we all are.

And at least her hair is perfect.

Cute Camino Kids

School Group:

As we trek high over a point between two stunning beaches, we meet a group a school kids following their teachers in a long line over the sand. The teacher stops to ask Troy if we are pilgrims.

(You have to keep in mind that as we cross over this peninsular, we pass strolling vacationers in bikinis, or locals with their dogs. We are  carrying massive packs, wearing big hiking boots and sweating profusely under the sun.)

“Hey everyone – ” the teacher calls back over the line of kids, “These are pilgrims going to Santiago!

Some of the children look at us, open-mouthed, and mutter some sort of Spanish equivalent of “Wow!”

One of them looks confused – “Santiago?” He asks.

de Compostela. En Galicia.” The teacher explains, and with one more kid now with his eyes popping out of his head, the group wave us good bye and wish us well on our journey.

Biker gang:

We are exhausted and unmotivated when we walk through a very remote town one day, after coming inland from the sea breezes along the coastal road, and come across a group of young kids standing around with their bikes.

It is the heat of the day, and siesta time, and so it is that time of the day when no-one else is out and about except pilgrims or crazy people. In this case, there is also a group of kids mucking around in the sun.

“Ola!” We greet them.

They look at us, at our bags, and as many people seem to do – at our feet.

“Where are you going?” The kid with glasses asks.

Thinking he might be asking where we are from, but not sure, I hesitate.

“You – ” he points to us both, “where are you going?” He points along the road.

A cute kid at the back of the gang pipes up – “To Santiago!”

“Ooh! Very good!” I point to him, in a pleased teacher voice.

They all look at him, wondering how he knows that. (I don’t think many pilgrims take this road through their town, most just stay on the main road.)

“Come on!” I say in Spanish, “To Santiago!!”

The kid with the glasses screws up his face at us, and says, “aah, no…”, and they all laugh at us crazy pilgrims as we walk away, onward to Santiago.

Cheeky buggers!

We walk into a small village, and find two brothers playing out in the midday sun. The older one is madly pushing the younger one around on his little three-wheeled bike, and we are pretty sure he will go flying onto the road any minute. We smile and say hello.

The oldest kid says “Where are you going!?”

“To Santiago” I say.

The kid looks worried and says (something along the Spanish lines of) “It’s that way! Go that way!” He points along the road we have come.

Troy and I look at each other, look at the kid, look at the path with the clearly marked Yellow Arrows bringing us to this point.

The kid cracks a smile despite his best efforts not to.

“No it’s not!” I say, “This way – ” I point West.

The two brothers are laughing as we pass them, and suddenly the older one calls us back, “Photo! Photo!” He makes a photo taking action.

He and his little brother pose while we take a photo, and we carry on.

VIN: Not for Profit, All for People

Bhupendra, endearingly called Bhupi, the Executive Director of Volunteers Initiative Nepal, is a handsome man who grew up in a town at the foot of Mt Everest, and could be anywhere between 25 and 45 in age. He is always smiling, and has an infectious high-pitched laugh. He speaks English well, and always wears a funky leather jacket (he rides his motorbike to work).

We (another volunteer and I) are sitting in the VIN office, in Kathmandu, being inducted – which will involve basic Nepali classes, information about teaching English, health tips, and a presentation by Bhupi detailing the work that the organisation does, and where exactly our money is going.

I have to admit; the two reasons I chose to volunteer through VIN was a) because they were the cheapest, and b) because I wanted to go to Nepal. I did, however, find VIN came across as wholesome, and very community minded. Despite the grass roots-iness of the website, it seemed quite a large organisation, strong, and extremely professional. As I sit here and listen to Bhupi talk about VIN, I realise very quickly that it is not a large, well supported organisation. They are completely reliant on volunteer fees; to pay the salaries of the 15 workers, and complete their community goals, and their professionalism extends far beyond their website. I am immediately struck by the Bhupi’s eagerness to take on new ideas and advice that could help them in any area, and his openness regarding where a volunteer’s money goes.

VIN’s motto is “empowering marginalised communities”, and run various volunteer programs around Kathmandu. However, all money paid by volunteers that does not go to their accommodation and food, and the administration costs, contributes to the VIN Community Project in Jitpur, where the organisation is working particularly with women and children; to empower women through education and self-subsistence, and improve children’s lives through education and health awareness. Bhupi is particularly proud of their quest to build every household in the community a toilet (they have built 75 of the 250 odd needed), which will lower the rate of diseases that are so common in Nepal. In a few years, the community will take over the programs that VIN has initiated, and VIN will begin a new project in a new area, the location of which has already been decided.

Bhupi’s PowerPoint is hard hitting and frightening, and you can hear the concern in his voice for the people of his country. Less than 30% of women in Nepal are literate, vast numbers of children are not attending school (most of them girls) and Nepal is one of the only countries where women’s life expectancy is lower than men’s, due to a high rate of mortality during childbirth.

Despite this, Bhupi’s perspective remains positive, even when the rate of volunteers suddenly dropped this year, after a continual rise since the organisation began. This time last year, he had 26, this year, only 5. He muses that it could be the world economic situation, or the fact that the Nepalese government has just recently shut down the use of PayPal, making donations and payments by volunteers more difficult. Bhupi only displays some exasperation when he tells us of other organisations copying and pasting content from his website, which took him years to create.

Nepal is an amazing country – beautiful land, beautiful people – but with no welfare, rampant diseases claiming lives (ailments that we would laugh off after some food poisoning), poor education opportunities, extremely poor infrastructure that allows rubbish to fill the river, and roads to be washed away with rain, and the majority of youth choosing to leave the country to find work, Nepal is in trouble. The above is only a snippet of information about Volunteers Initiative Nepal, but I want to convey the importance of their survival, and the sincerity with which they are executing their Community Project in Jitpur. They have an in-depth website, and regular Newsletters detailing the organisation’s accomplishments in various areas of their work. Please consider VIN if you are considering any volunteer work in Nepal, or have any connections, donations or knowledge that could be of help to their endeavours.

And hopefully, PayPal will be up and running again in the future.

http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/

Why sometimes it’s good to lose

England retain the ashes. Oh the disappointment. Oh the sheer indignity of it all. We have lost. Lost! Hang on – we are Australia, the greatest cricketing nation in the world, the greatest SPORTING nation in the world. We can’t NOT be the best at ANYTHING. What is happening? Oh the shame.

Sometimes, we just have to lose. For a nation of people inclined to cut down tall poppies in any sphere, we should be happy – shouldn’t we? England played a fair, good (better) game, and they deserved to win.

And so now, how quickly we will shout out for a shake up of the squad, the sacking of our captain, and call for new talent, to rejuvinate and resurrect our team in order to retain the little urn that stands for so much between our country and our colonial Mother land.

In my hardcore Church-going days, someone said that God needs to break you down, so that you can rebuild yourself stronger than ever. We cannot always win, we cannot always be the best in the world at everything, and we cannot raise the children of our nation to just expect to win and be successful, just because it seems we always have been. Any success requires hard work and determination. England demonstrated this, and, now that we have lost, young Australians can feel that defeat, feel that disappointment, and look forward to a new, refreshing Australian side to once again work towards world domination.

For those of my generation who have grown up watching, and expecting, the consistent success of the likes of Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Gilchrist, the Waugh brothers, Hussey and McGrath, we will just have to suck it up, move on, and admit defeat.

But dang it they should have just brought Warnie back.